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Grassroots group wants Castille gone

Can an age issue and past controversies undue the state's chief justice?

Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Ronald D. Castille,is shown in his offices in center city with Liberty Place in the background.   ( Charles Fox / Staff Photographer )
Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Ronald D. Castille,is shown in his offices in center city with Liberty Place in the background. ( Charles Fox / Staff Photographer )Read more

PENNSYLVANIA Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille isn't on tomorrow's ballot, but a grassroots group with experience in judicial elections is calling for his ouster come fall.

Castille faces voters in November in a yes-or-no retention election, an exercise almost always resulting in judges getting new 10-year terms.

But Castille, a former Philly D.A. elected to the high court in 1993, retained in 2003 and head of the judiciary since 2008, has attracted his share of controversy.

So Harrisburg-based Rock the Capital scheduled the release today of an 87-page "report" on why Castille should not be retained.

Tim Potts, founder of the activist group Democracy Rising Pa., prepared the report for Rock the Capital but declined to discuss its contents prior to its release.

Rock the Capital's Eric Epstein said, "There is an aggregate number of issues that has aroused the skepticism of voters" regarding Castille and the judiciary, which Epstein labeled "a co-conspirator in the political shenanigans" of the state.

Rock the Capital helped drive the ouster of then-Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro in a November 2005 yes-or-no election after the infamous '05 legislative/judicial pay grab.

Nigro was the first (and last) state appellate judge tossed out by voters.

So, the question becomes: Can it happen again?

There is no shortage of high-profile judicial issues to point to in making an argument against the sitting chief.

Merely the fact that Castille is running is controversial. He's 69. The state constitution mandates that judges retire at 70. The provision is being challenged in lawsuits, including before Castille's court.

There is a pay-raise-related issue. The high court ruled in 2006 that judges could keep their '05 raises (after the Legislature, under public pressure, rescinded its raises). Castille wrote the majority opinion.

Castille's court drew criticism for dragging its feet during one of the nation's worst judicial scandals, the Luzerne County "kids for cash" debacle, in which two judges took nearly $3 million in kickbacks for sending juveniles to private prisons.

Castille was at the helm for the Philadelphia Traffic Court ticket-fixing scandal and as a fellow justice, Joan Orie Melvin, was forced to resign following a corruption conviction - for which she received what seemed a soft-landing sentence of house arrest, further testing faith in the judiciary.

I spoke with Castille about the effort to oust him.

He makes the case that individual rulings and controversies over the years should not be the sole measure of judicial performance.

"I have a body of law that covers some 600 major cases, including writing some 400 majority opinions," Castille says.

He notes that Rock the Capital failed in efforts to unseat justices Thomas Saylor in 2007 and J. Michael Eakinin 2011, both of whom easily won retention elections.

And Castille says that Nigro's '05 loss was due to the legal profession getting "caught flat-footed." (Read: Castille's working the profession to avoid a repeat.)

Nigro's loss followed the July '05 pay-grab and its attendant citizen rage: There were no legislative elections that year; judges had also gotten raises; and it was widely reported that then-Chief Justice Ralph Cappy was a pay-raise instigator.

(Then-Justice Sandra Schultz Newman narrowly survived retention the same year amid active public support from former Gov. Tom Ridge.)

Although there's nothing brewing statewide nearly as toxic as reaction to the '05 pay grab, there's always some undercurrent of judicial mistrust, if for no other reason than that half of those who go before any judge come away unhappy.

And the juxtaposition of Castille's retention with his age and with efforts to overturn the constitutional-age limit should attract more attention than normal to this year's yes-or-no vote.

Is it enough to chuck a chief? You'll be the judge.